Why teaching music reading is the wrong way to teach piano [Part 2]

Why teaching music reading is the wrong way to teach piano [Part 2]

music reading

In Part 2 of this series (click here for Part 1), I’m going to go into details about strategies that you can use to engage in a more multi-sensory approach to teaching including aural and music reading strategies and the importance of singing.

Aural Strategies

You may have some students who are very good readers. You, yourself may be an excellent reader and you may never really have tried doing much playing by ear.

When I was a child we had an electronic game called “Simon”. It looked like a big black apple pie with four coloured quarters on the top. Each colour would light up and produce a tone/sound.

The game would start by “Simon” sounding a tone and lighting up a colour, the gamer had to press the coloured quarters in the correct progression. The sequences of notes became gradually longer and more complex.

piano teaching games

Your students may enjoy playing a similar game with two pianos – you playing notes and your student playing them back to you.

I play a game in my classes where we go around the class each student plays the notes prior to them and they then add another note. Initially it is restricted to 3 notes then we expand to 5, 6, 7 and then a full octave.

My students think it hysterical when I don’t remember all the notes!

You could expand this to becoming a reading exercise using a white board. Ask students to put the next played note on the white board. This could make a great game to do in a class situation. Create teams of readers and players – players have to play the notes they hear, readers have to notate the notes read.

The importance of singing

Start singing!

I cannot overstate the importance of singing.

Here’s a quote from a teacher at Forte School of Music in Cardiff, UK and how singing while teaching and with her students has improved her own aural skills & abilities:

“The sense of pitch awareness and the development of perfect pitch is outstanding in Forte pupils. It amazes me that I have taught the pupils this myself as my listening skills were very poor as a learner – aural tests were my weakness at every level from grade exams to degree level.

It is without a doubt the use of solfege which has achieved this, and their outstanding pitch abilities produce comments from other music educators that come into contact with our pupils through their schooling and/or learning a second instrument. 

My own listening skills have improved beyond belief since I have been teaching solfege at Forte. I can pick up tunes easily now that I hear and can perform readily by ear.

In college I was the student who struggled to play the pieces, which had to be learned from memory.

 I have noticed one strange thing that has happened to me of late… on Saturday I played “Oh Holy Night” using the pitch transpose feature on my piano for the singer.

I have done this every two years for twelve years. This year though I was completely thrown by it and just felt completely out of sorts following the music… I think I may be developing perfect pitch!!”

– Jane Coles, Director Forte School of Music Cardiff, UK.

With your more advanced students you may like to play a pop song by ear, preferably one that has the chords, I, IV, V & vi.

Work out the key (if you don’t know the song, you will generally be able to find the first page on MusicNotes.com) Listen to the music on YouTube and encourage your student to try to work out the key/bass line or chords.

A word of warming, try this yourself first! Here’s a list of 4 chord songs

Playing by ear like this can be challenging.

Children need a lot of harmonic experience as well as note experience. Understanding of primary harmony is essential to being able to understand and use I, IV & V effectively.

Nearly all pop music today is based on primary harmony with added chords ii & vi. Having an understand of dominant-tonic harmony and secondary dominants (ii-V-I) is vital.

If you’ve never had any experience of this, I would recommend exploring Forrest Kinney’s Chord Play books and of course Tim Topham’s Pop PianoFlix course which is available free as part of Inner Circle membership.

Reading Strategies


I have recently discovered Ningenius and great game that students love to play. It’s an iPad only game but really does a great job in note identification. You’d be amazed how competitive some students can be!

The other amazing game, which is free for teachers is JoyTunes “Piano Maestro”. It has a series of games and other materials for students to develop their reading skills. (I have only just started to discover the variety of material on Piano Maestro – look out for the blog devoted just to this product in the future!)

Regularly playing new short pieces that can be learned in one lesson.

Composers like Geri Rea and Daniel Macfarlane have many pieces are great for students of all ages and abilities.

These composers offer Studio Licensing so once you have purchased the songs you can print them as many times as you like for your students. I have found that all my students have really improved their reading through implementing this strategy.

Kinesthetic Strategies: Movement & Percussion Instruments

Many piano teachers incorporate clapping into their teaching which is great. However, you can go much further.

Some other tricks are to add untuned percussion. I am currently teaching “Dance of the Little Swans” with a class of students who are getting ready for a Grade 3 Trinity College exam.

The left hand accompaniment needs to be very even and as it mimics the bassoon part in the orchestra, so I have had my students use a set of chimes to play E & B whilst reading the score. They had to come in with those notes every time they read them in the score.

This exercise gave students an aural experience, feeling of the pulse throughout the music, reading and an understanding of the score prior to analysis of the work.

In the video below you can see another example of students learning a Grade 1 exam piece, Elissa Milne’s “Groovy Movie”.

You can see how I’ve used movement, singing and words to get the “feel” of piece and in particular specific rhythms. Whilst this video is of children in a class setting, there would work perfectly well in a one on one setting.

Where to get more help and support

Other resources I recommend to assist with improving my teaching (in a multi-sensory way):

Naturally I’m going to say Tim Topham’s Inner Circle.

I feel very privileged to have been invited to be one of Tim’s “Expert Teachers”. You’ll be the company of Tim’s other Expert Teachers including Bradley Sowash, Leila Viss, Hugh Sung, Nick Ambrosino, Daniel Macfarlane, Tracy Selle and Jennifer Fox and more.

Joining a community like the Inner Circle offers teachers the opportunity to share and to ask  questions of other experienced teachers.

Orff-Schulwerk Associations: In Australia there are four levels of Orff-Schulwerk courses. Each course is about a week. You do need to complete them in course order. You’ll find you get the most out of Level 3 & 4, however you need the learning in Levels 1 & 2 to be able to complete 3 & 4.

Whilst the courses are not directly related in teaching piano in any way, after having completed all four courses, I found them to be extraordinarily helpful in my own piano teaching. The music learning experiences can easily be translated from tuned and un-tuned percussion instruments to piano.

Related: TTTV Using Orff to Teach Rhythm with Vashi Summervill 

Dalcroze: Dalcroze offers courses and workshops. I have participated in some workshops and they have been excellent. Dalcroze is my next stop in multi-sensory learning.

Kodály: Kodály is very much singing based. The strategies for engaging children to sing and develop notation strategies are excellent. My only hesitation with Kodaly training is movable Doh solfa.

At university my principle instrument was French horn and piano was my 2nd. During the course we also studied the philosophies and educational strategies of Orff, Dalcroze and Kodaly using both fixed and moveable Doh. I find it quite easy to move between the two, as a piano teacher I would always use fixed doh, as a singing or instrumental teacher I would use movable Doh.

The ongoing conflict between fixed and movable doh will wage between teachers forever. I believe, as a teacher, one tries to use the best available strategies to assist and develop a broad range of skills in your students so that they obtain the best possible outcome. At the end of the day, learning music is a journey, does it really matter what journey you made if the outcome is the same?


In summing up, any teaching strategy you utilise will also engage every student in a different way. I haven’t spoken about student learning styles in this article – that’s a another big blog post!

May I just finish by saying teaching using a multi-sensory approach will assist you to cater for the majority of your students with the added advantage of improving music skills (ear, eye & playing) across the board.

What’s your experience of multi-sensory learning? Have you got any suggestions for activities that may actually be away from the piano that help students learn more effectively?

Paul Myatt

Paul Myatt is a Director of Forte School of Music and a passionate piano teacher. He believes strongly in professional development for piano teachers and regularly participates in conferences and workshops to improve his skill.

Paul along with Gillian Erksine has written and created the teaching materials which are incorporated into Forte's education system which has over 4,000 students. Together they also write easiLEARN® Fundamentals Theory and Piano (available through all good music shops and Hal Leonard Australia, previous published by Warner Bros & Alfred Pub) which have been best sellers with many piano teachers. The AMEB has included their arrangements in examination books.

As a performer, Paul sings Bass in the Sydney Symphony Chorus and plays piano in a Cabaret show called 2Pauls. As part of his own professional improvement he is currently studying his A.Mus.A in Classical Singing.

Paul has his own blog at www.paulmyatt.com.au

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music reading
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  1. I love the idea of the Simon game on the piano and starting with 3 notes and building up to using an octave! What a great way to get students thinking higher/lower and eventually in intervals. Thanks for these articles 🙂

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